Alchemist are one of the very few prominent metal bands from Australia, and their magnum opus 'Organasm' (do you see what they did there?) seems to be unanimously praised as a more than worthy competitor for the big-selling American progressive metal acts that would easily be as successful as Tool if only they hadn't had the rotten luck to live Down Under, where the music scene is rather embarrassingly bad. While there's certainly truth in that claim, it's a little easy to back them as a unique and mysterious band due to their exotic flavour, when in fact their "distinctive" sound is more or less American in origin.
Fortunately, this album in particular shows the band's penchant for innovation, making effective use of spacey synthesisers, Eastern musical themes and tribal-tinged percussion to tell their thought-provoking tales of cataclysm against a backdrop that others have aptly described as the emptiness, desolation and beauty of the Australian outback. There's even a didgeridoo in the first song, just to keep up appearances, but I wouldn't go classing this as Rolf Metal just yet.
Incorporating synthesisers into their sound adds a certain epic elements to these compositions, something that is aided by the other instruments in the more relevant songs dealing with humanity's self-destructive tendencies, particularly the 'Evolution Trilogy' of tracks two to four. The Alchemist sound is distinctive and easily recognisable, with Adam Agius and Roy Torkington's guitars taking on a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour in many of their lead passages that only rarely veer into clichéd Egyptian territory, and Rodney Holder's excellent drums that incorporate tribal rhythms and variations throughout the recording in a way that never sounds forced, as it does in some Brazilian bands. John Bray's bass guitar is an important instrument that isn't overlooked or shifted into the background like that of most metal bands, even providing the lead riffs and melodies on occasion and enhancing the depth of the sound immensely, and the keyboards provided cooperatively by Bray and Agius (who is also the singer) hark back to the best of seventies space-themed progressive rock without the cheesiness that often comes with the territory.
Agius' vocals are really the only element that doesn't entirely fit and may take some getting used to, often becoming overly hostile in a shouting manner similar to Acid Bath or Fear Factory and then sounding a little hoarse in the calmer sections, but most of the vocal melodies are creative and memorable without veering into distracting pop choruses that would spoil the mood entirely - and if there's one thing this band does well, it's atmosphere. Rooted in a scientific observation of humanity's "evolution" into a warring, tribal species intent on annihilation that's all the more disturbing for its verifiable accuracy, the darker songs on this recording communicate apocalypse with all the crushing, crestfallen intensity of post-rock bands, but are made far more interesting to listen to. Each song takes roughly five minutes to engulf the listener in a soundscape of fear, depression, surreality and science fiction before disgorging them to carry on with their meaningless lives, injected with an unshakeable new sense of insignificance and guilt on behalf of the human race. Or something like that, you get the idea.
1. Austral Spectrum
2. The Bio Approach
3. Rampant Micro Life
4. Warring Tribes - Eventual Demise
5. Single Sided
7. New Beginning
8. Tide In, Mind Out
10. Escape from the Black Hole
The first song is possibly the most effective of the lot, opening with the infamous didgeridoo amidst a variety of natural instruments that are often difficult to distinguish or discern from the atmospheric keyboards. This opener demonstrates all of the band's strengths and signature traits, and winds slowly from pleasant, almost ambient passages to intense guitar-led sections that bear a passing resemblance to Gustav Holst's oft-quoted 'Mars, the Bringer of War.' It's here that the Evolution Trilogy kicks in, taking the listener on an epic fifteen-minute journey across the lifespan of the Earth in a style reminiscent of Ayreon without the glam. These three tracks flow together seamlessly, the only tell-tale indications of change being a resurgence in the lead drums and keyboards that become increasingly prominent as the suite progresses, the latter providing insight into why the band covered Jeff Wayne's 'The Eve of the War' a couple of years previously.
It's an accomplished work on the whole, even if it fades a little towards the end, and sees the album at its most dynamic as well as its most thoughtful and harmonious, even throwing in a David Gilmour style guitar solo for good measure. The only real let-down is Agius' tendency to shout too aggressively, however significant the subject matter may be, and this distraction keeps this a few notches away from perfection. Early points see the singer adopting a soft, gruff style similar to Swedish Viking metal, so it's a shame he didn't flex his vocal range more in these songs as he would in later, less significant songs. The finale 'Warring Tribes - Eventual Demise' also loses out for becoming too contradictory, beginning as an accessible rock song with a catchy riff and proceeding to shift restlessly between time signatures and moods in a manner not entirely relevant to the lyrics.
The album tends to become a bit more predictable and repetitive after this point, making it harder to recall particular favourites. The epic style remains along with the bipolar moods, occasionally to the point that I wished the band had concentrated on making particular songs stand out for being calmer or angrier than the rest rather than mixing them into the same emotive broth each time. 'Single Sided' has some great lead guitars and introduces Agius' ability to really screeeeeeam, which passes over into 'Surreality' in a nice touch of continuity that perhaps provides an insight into the recording process. This song in particular is a little too hostile in a groove metal style for my tastes, and its successor 'New Beginning' is a lot more successful in conveying the same feelings from a more effective musical backdrop, with energy and catchiness that wouldn't be out of place in a rock club (though the synthesiser overload at the end might confuse people in such an environment).
The final section of the album is something of a return to form, 'Tide In, Mind Out' acting as a condensed overview of the album with limited vocals before the less eclectic 'Eclectic' offers up a pure instrumental. Unfortunately, it's a bit of a wasted opportunity, the sort of low-key instrumental that replaces the vocal melodies with some half-hearted guitar leads and keyboards but that could easily have a shouting Aussie overlaid if the band had found the right lyrics. 'Escape from the Black Hole,' again threatening to leap into Ayreon dimensions but remaining grounded in sober reality (it would have been fun), repeats the apocalyptic post-rock-with-interesting-bits style of the first track to less effect, but is notable for Agius' duet with himself in contrasting crooning and yelled styles.
While Alchemist may not have succeeded in inciting an Australian wave of heavy metal, despite their best efforts (particularly in organising Australia's biggest metal festival 'Metal for the Brain' each year), superb albums like 'Organasm' are at least a starting point for the apologies owed by the nation for the Bee Gees, Kylie Minogue, Olivia Newton-John, Jason Donovan and Puppetry of the Penis. The album's forebodings of humanity's self-destructive path have unfortunately come a little late to save us now, and may be particularly pertinent when there's a big crack in the ozone layer working its way up from Antarctica to get you.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Austral Spectrum
2 Evolution 1 The Bio Approach
3 Evolution 2 Rampant Macro Life
4 Evolution 3 Warring Tribes Evential Demise
5 Single Sided
7 New Beginning
8 Tide In Mind Out
10 Escape From The Black Hole